[Editor’s Note: The Huskies’ first game back in the Big East tournament was a success, with the team defeating DePaul by a score of 94-60 in the quarterfinal round. UConn now faces Creighton in the semifinals. The game will be played at 9 p.m. Friday, March 12.]
Crossing the Hudson River into New York City for a basketball game at Madison Square Garden is a right-of-passage for a New Jersey hoops player. UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley has made the journey as a youngster growing up in Jersey City, as a player in the Big East at Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, and as both a high school coach in the Garden State and an assistant coach at Rutgers, the state university.
Yesterday, Hurley returned to The World’s Most Famous Arena, where his team will begin play in the Big East tournament as the No. 3 seed against No. 11 DePaul, which defeated No. 6 Providence 70-62 in the opening round. UConn plays tonight at 9 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1 with the radio broadcast on the UConn Sports Network.
As Hurley walked around the arena, he said the memories of his previous visits, with thousands of fans cheering, came back amid the quiet he has experienced during a season playing before seats filled with cardboard cutouts instead of fans.
“While the players were stretching I imagined what the crowd would have been like,” he said. “I saw an online clip of Kemba [Walker]’s shot from a phone at court level that was just a reminder of what it should be like.”
Walker’s step-back jumper in the Big East tournament is part of a string of victories that carried the Huskies to the NCAA championship in 2011 and is part of UConn’s long history in New York City. UConn has played more games at Madison Square Garden (119) than on any court but at home in Storrs and Hartford.
Hurley earned his 200th career win in the Huskies’ 98-82 win over Georgetown on March 5, the team’s fourth consecutive win and sixth out of its last seven games. College basketball analysts consider the Huskies to be a team on the rise and poised for NCAA tournament competition. Hurley says it took time for the team to get into a consistent routine while experiencing the cancellation or postponement of six out of nine games in December and four games in January due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the return of players from injuries, including James Bouknight, the team’s leading scorer.
“To be able to consistently play games has allowed us to improve and get comfortable and play better basketball,” he says. “Just getting consistent practice, getting into a routine of game preparation has allowed us to play good ball. We’ve dealt with a lot of stuff this year. We’ve got to have good preparation and not drink the Kool Aid because now we’ve gone from being a bubble team to now all of a sudden Final Four sleeper. I love that we’ll have a chip on our shoulder and real edge to us. That’s our mentality. For us to be a factor deep into the Big East tournament and to win more games in the NCAA tournament we’ve got to maintain a very high level of play. The theme coming in was to finish. If you want to advance deep into these tournaments in March you’ve got to have a high level of play.”
Big East coaches recognized the progress made by the Huskies in their return to the conference this season. Senior Isaiah Whaley was selected co-defensive player of the year, sharing the award with Posh Alexander of St. John’s, and senior Tyler Polly was named sixth man of the year. Sophomore guard Bouknight, the team’s leader, was on the All-Big East first team and Adama Sanogo was named to the all-freshman team. Following the Georgetown win, Bouknight and Whaley told reporters the team’s confidence continues to grow as they head in the postseason.
“We know we have a special team and can actually make something happen and make some noise and be that big, name-brand school,” Bouknight says. “We’re just going to stay prepared and expect a war every game.”
Adds Whaley, “I think we have even more confidence this year going into the tournament. We’re just clicking now, just playing real good basketball. We’re going to play as hard as we can and make the most out of March.”
Hurley says the Huskies are just one of several teams capable of winning the Big East tournament, noting the disruptions caused by the pandemic have made the usual statistical measures of teams playing games in and out of the conference difficult to read. He adds that the absence of playing before fans has also changed the experience of playing college basketball.
“To not have the fans, your home, or road fans where it’s so intense, has eliminated so much of the joy that you experience,” he says. “It’s such a huge part of what makes us tick and makes it such a special experience in college basketball, especially at a place like this, with what we get at Gampel and XL. It’s as good as it gets in the country. The only reward was to put ourselves in a position where we could make a run in the conference tournament and get ourselves in the NCAA tournament. A season this brutal, literally, to have a Sunday [NCAA] selection moment and to have a real chance in the Big East tournament, that’s the reward for getting through a tough year.”
DePaul is led by Charlie Moore, averaging 14.4 points per game, and Javon Freeman-Liberty, who averages 13.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. UConn defeated DePaul at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 30, 82-61, and on the road on Jan. 11, 60-53. The Blue Demons coach is Dave Leitao, a former UConn assistant coach under Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.